On Monday afternoon, 18-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer announced his withdrawal from the French Open and the remainder of the clay court season, a decision that was likely a strategic attempt to increase his longevity on the ATP World Tour.
Federer, 35, revealed in a prepared statement that the decision was "not easy to make," though it helped ensure that he "could play the remainder of the season and help extend the rest of my career." The World No. 5 added that he plans to focus his attention on the grass court season ahead, and an eighth Wimbledon title.
"I have been making steady progress with my overall fitness, but I am still not 100% and feel I might be taking an unnecessary risk by playing in this event before I am really ready," Federer explained. "I remain as motivated and excited as ever and my plan is to achieve the highest level of fitness before returning to the ATP World Tour for the upcoming grass court season."
Federer's withdrawal from Roland Garros marks the second consecutive year that the former champion will not be a part of the prestigious tournament in Paris. In 2016, the Swiss star missed the French Open with an unspecified injury, which put an end to his remarkable 17-year streak of uninterrupted Grand Slam appearances that began in 1999. However, while Federer's decision to pull out of the tournament in 2016 was likely necessary to allow his aging body to recover from injuries, his 2017 withdrawal was simply veteran savvy.
The 2009 French Open champion has had a magnificent year. He claimed his 18th major championship at the 2017 Australian Open, his first appearance following a knee injury that put a premature end to his 2016 season. Yet despite his six-month layoff in the lead-up to the event, Federer scored three Top-10 victories en route to the final, including a five-set wins against Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka. His incredible run in Melbourne culminated in an enthralling five-set masterpiece against longtime rival Rafael Nadal. By winning his fifth Australian Open title, Federer broke his own Grand Slam record, and did so by defeating his arch nemesis in a major final for the first time since the 2007 Wimbledon final.
Roger Federer is the first Australian Open men's champion to miss the French Open in that same season since Boris Becker in 1996.- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 15, 2017
The Maestro was playing some of his best tennis in a decade. And yet, he wasn't done.
Since his stunning performance down-under, Federer returned to North America, where he won the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells and the Miami Open -- a pair of coveted Masters 1000 titles -- two weeks apart in March. He also bested Nadal in two more matches, including the Miami final, which gave him a near-perfect 19-1 record heading into the clay court season. However, when Federer announced that he would only take part in Roland Garros without any warm-up tournaments like the Madrid Masters, it became evidently clear that the Swiss veteran was not overly invested in a second French Open title.
Federer's decision to withdraw from the French Open highlights his desire to be more selective with the tournaments he participates in. Given the difficult season he has had to overcome over the past few years, he will likely be protective of his current record and far more interested in prioritizing victories than maximizing them -- a veteran's mentality that develops after a player realizes his own physical fragility past the age of 30. In Federer's case, the first three months of 2017 surpassed all expectations placed on him by fans, pundits, and his own team, so much so that it normalized the suggestion that an eighth Wimbledon title is entirely within his grasp. In order to ensure that Federer is in peak condition for the grass court season, he chose to sacrifice his low chance of victory on clay, a seemingly fair exchange for all but Federer fans awaiting him in Paris.
It should be noted that Federer's statement announcing his withdrawal from the French Open came shortly after Nadal won the Madrid Open. While it could be nothing more than coincidence, it does suggest that Federer made the call to not participate in the event once it became apparent that Nadal would be in fine form on clay. Given that Nadal holds a 13-2 career record against Federer on clay, and is ahead 23-14 overall, why cross paths at the French Open, when Federer can save the date for his favored grass terrain?
While Federer's selective scheduling strategy is not commonly practiced in tennis, as players generally vie for all four Grand Slam events and are mandated to play a specific amount of tournaments each year to remain in the Top 30, he is one of the few players already granted exemptions because of the ATP criteria for longevity (12 years of service, age 30+, and over 600 tour matches). Only a handful of veterans meet this criteria, which is why tennis will continue to see players prioritize certain portions of their schedule over the coming years. Players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will soon begin to question their gruelling schedules and the impact they have on their bodies and mental health.
In short, as players continue to age and find themselves on the wrong side of 30, they will turn to Federer as the model for professional resilience.